London: Hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in western countries to join Islamist fighters in the Middle East, causing increasing concern among counter-terrorism investigators.
Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry militants, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media.
Women and girls appear to make up about ten per cent of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with militant groups, including Daesh, formerly the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. France has the highest number of female militant recruits, with 63 in the region — about 25 per cent of the total — and at least another 60 believed to be considering the move.
In most cases, women and girls appear to have left home to marry militants, drawn to the idea of supporting their “brother fighters” and having “jihadist children to continue the spread of Islam”, said Louis Caprioli, former head of the French security agency Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. “If their husband dies, they will be given adulation as the wife of a martyr.”
Five people, including a sister and brother, were arrested in France earlier this month suspected of belonging to a ring in central France that specialised in recruiting young French women, according to Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister.
Counter-terrorism experts in the UK believe about 50 British girls and women have joined Daesh, about a tenth of those known to have travelled to Syria to fight. Many are believed to be based in Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city that has become a Daesh stronghold.
Those identified by researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London are mainly aged between 16 and 24. Many are university graduates, and have left behind caring families in their home countries. At least 40 women have left Germany to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq in what appears to be a growing trend of teenagers becoming radicalised and travelling to the Middle East without their parents’ permission.
“The youngest was 13-years-old,” Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told the Rheinische Post. “Four underage women left with a romantic idea of jihad marriage and married young male fighters who they had got to know via the internet.”
In Austria, the case of two teenage friends, Samra Kesinovic, 16, and Sabina Selimovic, 15, who ran away from their homes in Vienna to join militants in Syria, may be “only the tip of the iceberg”, said Heinz Gartner, director of the Austrian Institute for International Politics. An estimated 14 women and girls are known to have left Austria to fight in the Middle East, according to the interior ministry.
The US does not have available data on women and girls joining Daesh fighters in Syria, a senior intelligence official said in an emailed statement. “We do not have numbers to share on the number of women linked to [Daesh] or fighting for them,” the official said.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, downplayed the issue in the US, saying the number of women and girls joining Daesh was of concern, but not an epidemic. “It’s a threat, but it’s [one] among many potential threats coming out of Syria,” he said.
Karim Pakzad, of the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said some young women had “an almost romantic idea of war and warriors.
“There’s a certain fascination even with the head and throat-cutting. It’s an adventure.” Some may feel more respected and important than in their home countries, he added.
But Shaista Gohir, of the UK Muslim Women’s Network, said little was known about the young women’s motivation or what happened to them after leaving home. “Some of these girls are very young and naive, they don’t understand the conflict or their faith, and they are easily manipulated. Some of them are taking young children with them; some may believe they are taking part in a humanitarian mission,” she said.
Social media plays a crucial role in recruiting young women to join Daesh in the Middle East, according to many experts.
Some British women and girls have posted pictures of themselves carrying AK-47s, grenades and in one case a severed head, as they pledge allegiance to Daesh. But they are also tweeting pictures of food, restaurants and sunsets to present a positive picture of the life awaiting young women in an attempt to lure more from the UK.
Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at Massachusetts University and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, said the recruitment campaign painted a “Disney-like” picture of life in the caliphate. Some young women were offered financial incentives, such as travel expenses or compensation for bearing children.
Women already living amid Daesh fighters used social media adeptly to portray Syria as a utopia and to attract foreign women to join their “sisterhood in the caliphate”, she said. “The idea of living in the caliphate is a very positive and powerful one that these women hold dear to their heart.”
Sold into slavery
But the reality was very different, she said. Both Bloom and Rolf Tophoven, director of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, said reports indicated that women had been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry. “[Daesh] is a strictly Islamist, brutal movement ... the power, the leadership structure, are clearly a male domain,” said Tophoven.
Messages between a British Daesh fighter in Syria and his common-law wife, read in a UK court last month, revealed that many fighters are taking several wives.
In an article in Foreign Policy focusing on Daesh’s attitudes to women, former CIA analysts Aki Peritz and Tara Maller said fighters were “committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale.
“For example, the United Nations last month estimated that [Daesh] has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that [Daesh] abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse.
“Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of [Daesh] fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.”